At one point, a few years back, I was following dozens of blogs. Each morning, over a hundred new posts would be flagged in my Google Reader, and I would diligently make my way down through them. When the spirit moved me, I would click from Reader into the blog’s actual website and post a comment. Many people did the same. It was a rich environment that provided instant feedback to bloggers and a stimulating environment for the commentariat. It was hard to keep up the pace after Google Reader was discontinued. Eventually I stopped following all but my favorite blogs. Stationary Waves, along with all the other blogs I read, has suffered from lack of good content ever since.
Through that process, though, I was able to discover a few important bloggers who have made an extremely positive impression on me. These people exemplify what I believe to be an ideal mix of sharp thinking, humble inquisitiveness, commitment to discursive ethics (or, as I loke to call it, good-faith discussion), and human decency. If, by the time I die, my own personal character is even a pale reflection of theirs, I will consider myself a successful human being.
I’m speaking of Robert Murphy, David R. Henderson, and Jason Kuznicki. All three offer slightly different “flavors” of economics-informed libertarianism, but more important than that, all three exemplify the traits described above and seem like really, really decent human beings. I admire them for that. They’ve all earned a lifelong fan in me.
I didn’t know Nobel Laureate James Buchanan, nor do I know anyone who did. I have never heard any account, secondhand or otherwise, of what kind of a person he might have been. In absence of any reason to conclude that he was a nefarious villain, I assume he was a good person.
The scandal surrounding Nancy MacLean’s book, which alleges that Buchanan’s ideas were part of a right-wing – and perhaps even a white supremacist – conspiracy against people of color and democracy itself, has had an interesting effect on me.
I say “effect on me” not because I think I’m relevant to the discussion of MacLean’s and Buchanan’s ideas, but because any time deeply held beliefs are hotly contested, I turn inward and examine my own feelings in light of what I’ve heard or read. You, the reader, need not care what effect the scandal has on me, but I’m bringing it up under the beliefs that (a) I still have readers (ha, ha), and (b) we can all learn something here. Similarly, you might not necessarily care how a professional athlete’s good sportsmanship affects your neighbor, but if your neighbor learns an important life lesson while watching an NBA game, you might benefit from hearing what he learned.
First, I’ll tell you what I haven’t learned from this row. I haven’t learned anything new about Public Choice economics. I haven’t learned anything new about the Koch brothers. I haven’t learned anything new about politics or about academia. I certainly haven’t learned anything new about democracy. If MacLean’s intention was to teach people like me – informed laypeople with a prior interest in the subject matter and a genuine desire to learn – something new about any of these things, she did not achieve her goal. The comments sections from the few blogs I still read also attest to this.
I hasten to add that Buchanan’s defenders have also not taught me anything new about ibid. In fact, the whole episode has done more harm than good to all involved, at least in my opinion. Rather than debating the merits of public choice theory and its alternatives, which I presume MacLean would rather I learn about, we’ve all been debating the merits of accusing a dead economist and political theorist of racism.
In hindsight, we all should have known that only harm could ever come of such a process.
This brings me to what I have learned instead.
Imagine that James Buchanan was a good man. Whatever else you might think of his ideas or his principles, imagine that he was essentially a good man. How sad for a good man who was a professional academic to have his whole intellectual legacy besmirched by a person whose primary motivation was to disagree with his politics.
I’m sensitive to the rebuttal there: It seems tone-deaf to pity a dead rich white guy who got called bad names when the victims of institutionalized racism in America have had to deal with much worse. I agree: it is far worse to contest with the cultural obstacles associated with being black in America than than it is to be a successful academic whose legacy was questioned by another successful, white academic. I don’t want to minimize this point, either. In the grand scheme of things, racism is a much bigger problem than the integrity of a couple of academics or the fact that they might be falsely accused of being bad people.
I’m not saying that it’s a shame that James Buchanan stands falsely accused of racism. I’m saying that it’s a shame that any good person would have to be raked over the coals, their words used against them, and possibly even twisted to mean the exact opposite of what that person stood for.
Robert Murphy, by virtue of his association with the Ludwig von Mises institute, has recently been accused of racism for his defense of a recent Jeff Deist speech. I think this is unfair for reasons of good sense, but that’s not really what bothers me about his having been called a racist. What really bothers me is that any stranger who makes a point to acquaint himself with the works and personal character of Robert Murphy can see that he is a genuinely good man. And, in his case, I am privy to people who know him, and they all attest to the goodness of this character. There is, in short, no available evidence suggesting that Murphy is a bad person, much less a racist. And furthermore, if there were such evidence, Murphy would be the first person to own up to it. That’s how good a person he seems to be.
So, all this stuff got me thinking.
We never know what we’ll be accused of at some future date. We’ll never know how our words and actions will be judged by people in the future. I’ve made a living working for insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies, and marketing organizations, and big data. A plausible argument could be made that I have helped contribute to much of the world’s evil. I don’t see it that way, but the argument could be made, and defended.
One day, someone might choose to see me that way, as a perpetrator of evil rather than a regular guy who made his living in data analysis. If I’m being honest, that future person might very well be my own child, in her teenage or early adult years, learning to assert her own values and question my worth as a man and a father. It’s certainly happened to many parents before me. It’s a real risk.
In fact, there may be even more reasons to vilify me. Am I polite enough? Am I an open enough communicator? Do I condescend too much? Am I rude? Obnoxious? Foul? Am I self-absorbed? Do I fail to contribute enough to charity, or to society? Am I too apt to allow my insecurities to discolor my view of other people? Do I drink too much, swear too much, scowl too much? Am I a wastrel? Am I a miser? Is my need for privacy too costly for others? Do I expect too much from other people? Am I too emotional? Not emotional enough?
There are, indeed, many ways I have failed, and one day they might all catch up to me. I may die and no one will feel any pain or sorrow at my loss. They may only show up to my funeral out of an awkward sense of obligation – if they show up at all!
Or I may simply prove inconsequential, never inspiring much of any thought to anyone.
All of this may happen. All I can do is endeavor to be the kind of good people I see in Murphy, and Henderson, and Kuznicki. All I can do is try to learn from their example – and examples set by many other people, of course – apply those lessons to my life, and hope that some day I will have done enough that my child will think, “My father was a good man.”
Then my tired bones can rest in peace.